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How teenagers ended up operating crucial parts of England’s test and trace system

12 200 1901
28.10.2020

Until a working vaccine is released and widely used, our best hope of controlling Covid-19 is testing, tracing and isolating people who might carry the disease. Even after a vaccine is produced, test and trace will remain essential, as inoculation will not be completely effective, or universally accepted.

Today, it’s our only real hope of preventing repeated lockdowns, and other great interruptions to our lives. Yet the English system on which our freedoms depend is a total fiasco. The government has so far spent £12bn on test and trace. But, as a result of catastrophic mismanagement, it might as well have flushed this money down the toilet, as tracing has failed to reach the critical threshold (roughly 80% of contacts) needed to reduce the infection rate. Last week, after a further fall, the figure stood at just under 60%.

To put this in context, £12bn is more than the entire general practice budget. The total NHS capital spending budget for buildings and equipment is just £7bn. To provide all the children in need with free meals during school holidays between now and next summer term, which the government has dismissed as too expensive, is likely to cost about £120m: in other words, just 1% of the test and trace budget.

Because so much about this essential programme has been shrouded in secrecy, it’s not easy to see where the money has gone. But the breakdown of the system appears to result at least in part from its oversight by corporate executives (led by Dido Harding), with no relevant experience in public health and a track record of failure, rather than by professional public servants.

The government has created an opaque and unmanageable hybrid system of public and private provision, in which favoured corporations have received vast contracts without competition, advertising or even penalty clauses. Public health, reorganised in the midst of the pandemic to give even greater control to Harding and her chums, is in semi-privatised meltdown.

But that isn’t even the half of it. I’ve been talking to someone working on test and trace in a call centre subcontracted to Serco. I’ve confirmed their identity and job, but to protect their position, the worker wants to remain anonymous. Here’s what this person told me.

Until last week, the workers at the call centre were doing the simplest job in the tracing chain, calling those who have been identified as contacts of infected people and telling them to isolate themselves for 14 days, giving them........

© The Guardian


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